The blog’s offices are relocated now: here is our first entry from Pittsburgh, the Uncanny City! In keeping with our dedication to embracing writing in all forms — Poetry in the largest sense — we present an interview with a musician. Dorothy is a long-time reader of and contributor to this blog: you know her as Daylily. She has kindly agreed to “blow her cover” and answer some questions about her creative work.
Dorothy is a prolific composer and arranger of music — choral and instrumental (and combinations thereof), sacred and secular. She studied music as an undergrad, concentrating in organ. Now holding a Master of Music degree in history and literature, she has sung in choral groups all her life. She has been a soloist, choir director, church organist, composer-in-residence, and teacher of composition.
Especially within the last few years, her work has been receiving national notice. Yet she remains dedicated to encouraging others to develop and enjoy their musical gifts. One among many examples of her service to young musicians is her arranging of the songs for Glad to Be Alive!: A Musical Character Education Program of 54 Songs for Elementary Children by Kathryn S. Atman. This willingness to teach and share is apparent in Dorothy’s firm belief that music is a gift for people of all ages and abilities.
Here, then, are my questions and Dorothy’s answers:
Would you tell us about the scope or range of your work as a composer? That is, what types of music do you write?
I usually write for the performing forces available to me. So I have written numerous sacred choral anthems, a Christmas cantata, an Easter cantata, organ music, piano music, hand bell works, and various instrumental works and arrangements.
Recently, there was an exciting, large-scale performance of your musical setting for my poem “Summerdark.” Would you tell us when and where that was, who was involved, and how it came about? And how did it go?
The premiere of “Summerdark” was on May 22, 2011 in Stow, MA by the Sounds of Stow Festival Chorus, some forty voices. [Here is a link to the sound file]:
I had written the setting of “Summerdark” back in June of 2010 and was looking for a group to perform the work. Last January, I attended a workshop for choral directors and choristers. There I met Barbara Jones, director of the Sounds of Stow. She and some of her choristers were sitting at one of the lunch tables and I joined them. When the discussion turned to the spring concert of the chorus, and Ms. Jones mentioned that the theme would be place-related, I thought, “’Summerdark’ is a place. It’s an imaginary place, but it’s a place!” So I mentioned “Summerdark,” the director was quite taken with the MIDI file of the piece, and she programmed the work. The choir enjoyed the piece immensely and so did the audience; I myself sank into the music and lived in it for those few moments, as it finally became this work of living sound. Here it was, sung with the expression and the mystery for which I had hoped. At last the work was no longer just my private inner recording of the imaginary choir that sings in my head!
As for the inspiration to set “Summerdark” to music, that goes back to your blog entry of some time back (April 30, 2009, “Spring-Boards”), in which you quoted part of your poem “I Am Looking at Lilacs,” using various lines to accompany your pictures of spring in Japan. I was intrigued by the poem and wanted to see the whole thing, and you kindly sent me a copy. The poem sat on my desk for a while, and one day I realized that it would make a lovely choral work. Then, this choral piece needed a companion piece, and that turned out to be “Summerdark”! (Both poems are in your book of poetry, Songs of Summerdark.)
What are the challenges of setting an existing poem to music?
The challenge is to listen to the poem and let it tell you what the setting should be, i.e., what are the logical rhythms of the words, what are the shapes of the phrases, who is singing this line or that, who answers with another line, and what sort of tone painting might words like “deep beneath the wall” (in “Summerdark”) be asking for. “Deep beneath the wall” turned out to be a line for the bass section to sing at the bottom of their range! The biggest challenge is to listen first and to not write anything down too quickly, i.e., to let the words make their own setting.
You also recently did a setting for a poem of John Milton’s, which won you some serious recognition. Please tell us about that!
I chose to set John Milton’s “At a Solemn Musick” for the 2010-2011 Sorel Medallion Choral Composition Contest, a competition for women composers. The setting was required to be for mixed chorus and pipe organ, i.e. the Voices of Ascension, a 40-voice choir of paid professionals, and a new five-manual Pascal Quoirin organ, the first French-made organ to be installed in New York City. The entry was to be no longer than eleven minutes. I wanted a text with some length, some drama, and some interesting word pictures. This text has that and more! Setting it was quite a challenge. The setting is very much text-driven, with a good deal of tone painting. For example, for the phrase “hymns devout and holy psalms,” the music sounds like a four-part hymn. “And with harsh din” is spoken by the voices individually, in an additive effect, louder and louder, then adding chord clusters with the organist’s fists. It is a most horrible cacophony, as befits the text which says “disproportioned sin Jarr’d against natures chime, and with harsh din Broke the fair musick”. The opening pictures of the poem depict the glorious harmony of all heaven united in praise to God, a song which earth once joined until sin introduced discord to the world. But the poem ends in hope, and correspondingly the music returns to the joy and light of heaven. I found it to be a very educational experience, writing something this long (eight and a half minutes) and working with a text of this difficulty. It was a great honor to have the work selected for the semifinalist and then the finalist round! The three finalists were invited to New York City for the rehearsals and performance of our pieces. We all received transportation to NYC, lodging in a fine hotel, meals, consultations with the conductor, and the performance of our work by one of the best choirs in America. That was the best prize of all: the performance. The Voices of Ascension are astoundingly good. It was a night of goose bumps! We did not know who would receive what place until midway through that evening of June 8, 2011. As it turned out, I received third place and $1000 for “At a Solemn Musick.” Considering the music of the second half, “Missa Brevis” by Zoltan Kodaly and “I was glad” by Sir Charles Hubert H. Parry, I felt blessed to have my work premiered amid such company and by such a superb ensemble!
You are a composer, organist, pianist, singer, and teacher of composition. What are the interrelationships of those roles? How do you divide your time and energies among them?
Great question! I find that each of these interests informs the others. For example, my personal acquaintance with the organ, piano, and voice makes me know what will work on these instruments and what will not. And all the literature I have performed with these instruments is part of the background I bring to my writing. Also, improvising at the organ is a form of composition and can lead to a written composition. In teaching composition, I think about what I know and what I want to convey, and that helps me to be more intentional in my own composing. As for time, there are not enough hours in the day! My idea of heaven is getting to write, play, and sing daily, but that does not often happen. So I allot my time according to the performances coming up and the deadlines for the various compositions. I do usually sing and hum a little each day, because I retain my range better that way. And I enjoy singing and improvising with my voice in the car!
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about where fiction writers get their ideas. Where do musical inspirations come from? How does a composition begin in your mind?
I have no one answer for this question. It depends on what sort of composition it is. If the piece is a setting of a hymn text, I start with the text and do some research, looking for the best available common domain tune. Sometimes I find a wonderful tune to suit the text; sometimes the best solution is to write my own tune. Once I have text and tune, all the rest follows. The usual form is introduction, stanza one, interlude, stanza two, interlude, stanza three, etc., coda. If the piece is a setting of a poem, it may well become a freeform interpretation of the text, with the tune varying from stanza to stanza. If the piece is purely instrumental, it may be based on a pre-existent tune, or it may develop from a fragment of melody that comes to me.
When you have an idea, do you usually know from the start what form it will take? Has a piece ever surprised you along the way?
When I write a choral anthem using one tune (pre-existent or my own), the form will be as described above. The fun is in listening to the piece in my mind and hearing which of the many possible ways of setting text and tune will be the way this piece wants to develop. Who will sing first? Who will answer? What sort of dialogue will develop between the voices? With a freeform setting of a poem, I have many more surprises. Besides listening for who is singing, I listen for what will be the best bit of melody to set a certain bit of text. My biggest surprise was in setting “O the Depth!” by John A. Dalles. A certain part (“sound the Alleluia, Alleluia”) wanted to modulate ever higher and higher, and end up who knows where, in some heavenly realm perhaps. It was like nothing I’d ever written before. And this part I had to work out at the piano, because I really couldn’t hear where this was supposed to be going. It did turn out to be a suitably dramatic effect, despite my misgivings.
Have you always known you wanted to be a composer?
No, I am a late bloomer. My talent started to come out in graduate school.
How did music first enter your life? Where did the “music bug” come from?
Our family often had classical music playing in the house, and we attended concerts. I started piano lessons the summer after first grade. Sometime in grade school, I knew that I would be an organist like my grandfather Henry VanAndel, the first college organist of my alma mater, Calvin College. I majored in organ at Calvin and the organ has been an important part of my life ever since.
You know I’m going to ask about tools and work spaces. Do you compose on paper or with a computer? Do you have favorite equipment and/or a favorite place to work?
My tools are paper and pencil, computer, and keyboards. If the composition involves a text, I start with the text on one sheet of paper. Then I sit on the sofa and listen for what setting the text wants to create. I listen over and over until the setting settles into one form. Then I’ll make a few notes next to the text regarding who is singing, what the interludes are, etc. At this point, I might make some notes in my music sketchbook. If the composition is a freeform setting, I will have far more to write into the music sketchbook. Once I’m satisfied with the outline of the piece, I enter the basic melodic structure into the computer, using my electronic keyboard. I print the outline and take it to the acoustic piano to fill in harmonies and accompaniment. I work through the piece to the end. Then I go back to the computer and enter in as much as I can. I listen to the computer playback and refine the piece, taking the piece back to the piano if I need to. Before releasing the piece, I play through the accompaniment myself, to find those little things the computer playback will not show me.
A challenge I face as a writer is that my fiction tends to defy the classification labels that marketing departments like. Is there any similar difficulty in the music field?
Certainly. Publishers of music tend to like “more of the same, only different,” just as in book publishing. Anything too unusual in style or too difficult or too long is suspect. In choral music, it is the short works that sell. It is hard to get multi-movement works published. In fairness, one can see that publishers can’t just publish music out of the goodness of their hearts; they have to be able to sell copies. It is possible to write music that fits into a publishing niche and is also a work of art in itself. But the temptation is do what sells, thereby letting the niche more and more define one’s art.
In the world of fiction writing, the typical pattern is that writers try to get published. They look for agents and editors who believe in the book. How does it work in your arena? How do composers get their work to audiences?
Agents are less interested in representing composers, because we are usually producing numbers of small works, rather than larger works with larger price tags. [Fred’s interruption: Just as in the fiction industry, agents don’t handle short stories.] And in the music field, the larger works are much harder to get published. The publishers want easier, shorter works so that they can sell lots of copies. So it’s a matter of finding a publisher that wants the kind of thing you are writing, or of writing what they want, or both. A composer can find a limited audience for almost anything he/she writes by finding a local group to perform the work. Said work may or may not be publishable; it all depends upon whether a publisher thinks the work is salable.
Are you more productive at certain times of day?
I am most productive at night. I like to write music after dinner, if I have no evening meetings. But I can write music at any time of day.
Was there a breakthrough or epiphany moment in your musical life, when you felt you took a great stride forward as a composer?
The first breakthrough was the result of taking “Beginning Choral Writing” with Alice Parker. It was in that course that I learned how to think of choral music in terms of voices in a dialogue, answering back and forth. I also learned how to find the outline for a new piece and how to listen to the piece develop from beginning to end before starting to write down the notes. This course revolutionized my composing technique!
A number of years later, the course I took with Jeanne Cotter opened to me the great possibilities of creative harmonization. Every once in a while, I have another breakthrough. The most recent one is realizing that now I can write freeform settings of poetry, settings that interpret the words more closely than can be done by using the same tune for each stanza. “I Am Looking at Lilacs” was the second of these settings and “Summerdark” was the third.
It seems to me that composers have a point in common with playwrights: what they write passes through an intermediary agency before it reaches the audience — either actors or performing musicians interpret the work, and some of their choices may not be what the creator intended. Is this a difficult aspect of composing, and how do you deal with it?
I always feel grateful to the performers, without whom the work would only be black marks on a white piece of paper. The score is merely a guide to the music; it is not the music itself. And I respect the insights that various conductors and performers bring to the music. I also strive to attend rehearsals of a new work, so that I can help to shape the premiere. This is important, because although composers try to put every indication possible into the score to help the performers, the score is still an imperfect guide to the music. [Fred’s intrusion: So it sounds like it’s more a plus than a minus to have all these other minds and talents contributing to the performance. I hear you! In that way, musical compositions are like movie scripts, too. The finished movie is the collaboration of hundreds and hundreds of people. Fiction writers, of course, have the help of editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, jacket designers, artists . . . and finally, of course, to all these works comes the audience — the reader, viewer, or listener, who brings the work to the only life it truly has.]
Would you be willing to relate for us one of your finest moments as a composer?
That would have to be the premiere of “At a Solemn Musick” by the Voices of Ascension! At the end, I wanted to jump up and shout, “Hallelujah, Amen!”
What drew you to the organ? Was it the first instrument you played?
The piano was my first instrument, and I still love to play the piano, as well as finding it a vital tool for my work as composer. But I took an interest in the organ from a young age, perhaps because of the many and varied sounds available on a fine instrument, the powerful sound of the full organ, and the fascination of studying an instrument that demands the use of two hands and two feet, sometimes all at the same time!
Many writers seek the opinions of test readers at some point before considering a book or story ready to go out into the world. Do you do something similar?
I always seek a first performance of a work before submitting it for publication. No matter how good the computer playback is, it does not tell all. Having heard the piece brought to life, I then know what little things should be altered in the score. It could be so small as an added expression mark or a courtesy accidental. My proofreading is very good, but there is nothing like a live performance to show exactly what one has written!
Has there been a particular composer or two that has/have especially inspired or influenced you?
My influences are many and varied: J. S. Bach, Brahms, the English composers such as Ralph Vaughn Williams and Herbert Howells, and contemporary women composers such as Alice Parker and Jeanne Cotter.
What would you say is the reason you compose? What do you hope to accomplish through your work?
I write music because I must. Believe me, my life would be much easier without writing music. I have so many interests that I could very happily and productively fill my time without writing a note of music. However, I have found that I am incomplete unless I write music. It is perhaps my best gift from God, and I feel the strong pull to use it. I feel the call to create beauty. The world has far too much ugliness in it, and more beauty is needed as a counterbalance. And I hope that the music I create points to the Creator of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).
Thank you, Dorothy!
You are most welcome, Fred! It was an honor.